Where The ‘Real’ Power of the Speaker of the House Comes From

In keeping with this past week’s announcement that current Speaker John Boehner will retire at the end of October, it seemed fitting to really examine the power and possibly the Achilles heel of the House Speaker.

Not nearly as many shenanigans happen in the House as they do the Senate: Cloture and filibuster were eliminated by 1842, disappearing quorums were eliminated in 1890 (basically refusing to vote, although we now see “present” votes occasionally), and compelled attendance (forcibly arresting members of the House to return to the floor) only happened twice in the previous century.

Prior to 1911, the only power the Speaker of the House had was to appoint members to standing committees and to preside over the House Rules Committee — which dictated the flow of legislation.

This is still the origin of most of the modern Speaker’s powers even today.

The Speaker has to be cautious not to unduly tie up time in the House, when there is little or no interest in the bill in the Senate or the Executive Branch.

While the last two congresses have definitely become the “do nothing” congresses, sometimes it’s interesting to break it down by numbers. In the 114th Congress: 124 House bills have been submitted and only 3 bills have been enacted as laws. The 113th Congress was even worse: 10,637 bills were submitted and only 381 bills were enacted into law.

Controlling the flow of bills, especially “pet legislation” put forth by congressmen to deliver on campaign promises — with little to no hope of ever becoming law — clogs up a good chunk of the system.

I’m a big believer in Thoreau. He often quoted Jefferson, saying, “That government is best which governs least.” Yet at some point, we have to have laws that actually address the needs of the nation.

While the power of the speakership has been one of partisan politics, it really doesn’t have to be. There have been several great statesmen in American history who got valuable legislation passed in the most hostile political climates.

But even more than this, the real power of the Speaker is who selects them. In a two-party horse race, each party has their candidate for Speaker and the majority party gets their way. But what if there was actually a sizable contention of independents in the House, who had it within their power to swing the balance either way?

Much like the parliamentary system, this would create coalition governing where the majority party “can’t” ram through their pet issues because they would lose the support of their partnerships. Because minor coalitions are so critical, while small in number, they can often sway policy–even to the level of picking the Speaker–or they could just defect to the other side.

In America, we have become very good at conducting bipartisanship, yet we have no clue as to what it means to actually be statesmen. We have no idea of what it means to build a coalition around an idea, and then gain popular support for it, rather than always dreading cloture, the veto, or leadership sitting on the bills.

The real power of the Speaker comes from the makeup of the House. When 45 percent of the population now declares itself independent, why don’t we have a strong independent movement in the Senate and House? Because only then would the power of our nation’s leaders truly be coming to them in the most democratic form possible.

Photo Source: Reuters